This is the first English translation of this interview and the opening installment in a Liberation School series of previously untranslated work by Thomas Sankara. This translation series is the result of a collaboration with ThomasSankara.net, an online platform dedicated to archiving work on and by the great African revolutionary. We would like to express our gratitude to Bruno Jaffré for allowing us to establish this collaboration and providing us with the right to translate this material into English for the first time.
Thomas Sankara (1949-1987), who is sometimes referred to as the “African Che Guevara,” was the Marxist-Leninist leader of the Burkinabé Revolution from 1983 until his assassination in 1987, which is finally being investigated 1. Sankara made major contributions to the anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggle, the defense of national self-determination, the construction of socialist internationalism, women’s liberation, the fight against capitalist-driven environmental destruction, and many other significant fronts of global class struggle 2.
“We didn’t import our revolution”
On January 23, 1984, the very young “President of the National Revolutionary Council of the Republic of Upper Volta” was “the guest of L’Humanité.” Read the entire interview in which Thomas Sankara chose to speak the truth.
He is a smiling, relaxed, humorous, frank man who received us at length, one Sunday evening, in his office at the Conseil de l’Entente, at the end of a twelve-day stay in Upper Volta [the country would take the name of Burkina Faso in August 1984—editor’s note], which allowed us to meet him on three occasions. He insisted on telling us after the interview that he had known our newspaper for a long time and would take this opportunity to “say hello to all our fellow readers.”
André Brecourt: Much has been written about the young revolution in Upper Volta. Its style is surprising, and it disturbs a lot of people. Can you tell us why?
Thomas Sankara: It is true that our revolution bothers and surprises a great number of people. It is surprising in the sense that it broke very clearly with generally accepted cliches, which make the military’s coming to power into a banal coup d’etat. What we achieved here was not what you could call a coup d’etat. There was a thoroughly prepared popular insurrection in which progressives, revolutionaries and democrats came together to end a regime of submission to imperialism. This is what surprised those who don’t want to understand the direction in which the history of the people of Africa is evolving. What is also surprising is that the Voltaic soldiers are far from being the poor brutish soldiers that people know of elsewhere, or some imagine here. The vast majority of Voltaic soldiers are very politicized. They are linked to their people and share their aspirations and daily struggles. They know who their principal enemy is and how to combat this enemy.
If our revolution worries some, it’s primarily because of the example it can set, and not just in our sub-region. We didn’t import our revolution, let alone decide to export it. It is the result of a historical process—scientifically verified and inevitable—in the transformation of the struggles that the social classes have to wage against each other in order to achieve this form of revolution that only asks to be perfected, the same causes producing the same effects no matter the skies under which one finds oneself.
André Brecourt:You intend to progress forward quickly. However, feudalism in the countryside remains powerful, and the same goes for the comprador bourgeoisie. Both retain the upper hand over the economy. What measures do you intend to take to limit their power?
Thomas Sankara: There is a first step, which consists in issuing decrees and ordinances; we reject this because it is essentially bureaucratic. The second consists in lifting the popular masses out of obscurantism. That is the measure we endeavor to undertake.
Fighting against obscurantism means allowing each individual of Upper Volta to elevate their level of political consciousness. It means being a people for itself [un peuple pour soi] and not for others [pour autrui], and this is not easy insofar as access to knowledge is still controlled by the bourgeoisie and feudal forces. We are determined to confront them, and for that we intend to accelerate the process of democratization in order to drive them out.
This does not happen without excesses; but how could it be otherwise? We are pleased with the updates regarding what is occurring in the countryside. For the first time, peasants dare to inform the authorities of the abuses they suffer. We do not see this as an act of snitching, contrary to certain assertions, but rather as the beginning of an awareness among our peasants, who now intend to effectively participate in the daily management of power.
We intend to demystify these forces of the past and present them as they are to our people. This is why we are in favor of a responsible, militant press, of a radio service that will allow us to be heard in the farthest reaches of the country and in the languages that our compatriots understand.
André Brecourt: Your country is living in the hour of the “Committees for the Defense of the Revolution.” However, it seems that these also serve as a refuge for counter-revolutionaries. How do you plan on going about cleaning up the ranks of the CDRs so that they can really play their role?
Thomas Sankara: It’s true that you find a little bit of everything in the CDRs. You encounter reactionaries, who have cleverly integrated themselves, as well as left opportunists. The problem isn’t limited to these two categories. It is essential to understand that the CDRs constitute the main weapon, the frontline shock troops in the battle that will allow our revolution to triumph. So we are working to purify them, that is to say that we are working to get rid of counter-revolutionary elements. This can only be done with the patient but determined development of the democratisation of our structures.
We have already noted some results!
This is how some old authorities were deposed, on the basis of irrefutable facts presented by the CDRs. In contrast, other CDRs have had their practices condemned and have been obligated to re-elect their delegates and replace their office staff. There are also all kinds of excesses. This is normal and was foreseeable.
Between the Voltaic executive, an intellectual, who leaves his petty-bourgeois social milieu in order to join the revolution, and the Voltaic worker who has lived for twenty-three years under a neocolonial regime, between these two people the understanding of the revolution, as well as the practice, are not the same. One intends to carry it out with white gloves, and the other thinks that the revolution must give them the freedom to satisfy their every whim. We understand these behaviors very well.
Our revolution has defeated fatalism. The people, today, have the possibility of expressing themselves. Today, they liberate their instincts. Tomorrow, it will be their consciousness that is liberated, mobilized.
André Brecourt: What should, in your opinion, the place of unions be in the current process?
Thomas Sankara: The unions in Upper Volta have a longue tradition of struggle, although they are not homogeneous. We have had progressive, as well as reactionary unions. The latter were the secular arms of certain leaders under prior regimes. In the hour of revolution, we don’t have a choice. We can spare no effort in blocking the way of the reactionaries, whatever organization they take refuge in, whether it be unions or underground parties, because we know that they will spare no effort in their attempts to destroy us.4 Besides, soon after the 4th of August, 1983, an official from these “unions” proclaimed loud and clear that he would fight our revolution with his sword drawn if necessary.
As for the progressive unions whose actions serve the interests of the masses, we are counting on their support in order to move forward. By their capacity to mobilize, they occupy a prominent place in our revolutionary process. However, we don’t want a rivalry to develop between these unions and the CDRs. We are against that. For now, we don’t think there can be, from the point of view of revolutionary principles, any opposition between these unions and the CDRs. On the other hand, we are convinced that there can be, from a subjective point of view, oppositions, and we will have the courage to fight these in broad daylight, because we will denounce them as being practices of left opportunism.
André Brecourt: On October 28th, shortly before your departure for Niamey, you reported, in a highly publicized declaration, that there had been attempts to destabilize the state of Upper Volta. Could you tell us more about these?
Thomas Sankara: No, I don’t want to do that. We don’t want to pit our people against other peoples. But the subversive activities against Upper Volta are very real, constant. They are both national and international. We have proof of this. But we don’t think it would be appropriate to disclose it at this time as we don’t want to create an atmosphere of xenophobia amongst our people.
We want to circumscribe the evil and its origins, and clearly dissociate those who attack us from their people, whom we consider to be like our brothers, our friends. This is the reason why we don’t really want to share the evidence as it would amount to us pointing the finger at the nationality in question. That said, I solemnly confirm the reality of these plots. They do not stem from a simple logical analysis; this reality is obvious to everyone, except to those intent on demonstrating their short-sightedness. It stems from investigations that we have conducted and from information that sympathetic militants have provided to us.
We were thus able to see that a just revolution is never isolated. And this is, for us, a great comfort.
André Brecourt: How do you see your relationship with France?
Thomas Sankara: We want a dynamic cooperation of self-realization that allows the French and the Voltaic people to open up to one another. This type of cooperation will only see the light of day if the French and the Voltaic people rid themselves of the cold calculations that hide behind the interests of one state to another. This will happen only if they are both convinced that every form of neocolonialism, imperialism, and paternalism is excluded from this type of relationship.
This means that our dignity must be respected, as well as our sovereignty. This also means, and above all, that we must essentially work to bring our two people together and not to cultivate official, formal relations. It is only in this way that we will be able to have a substantial policy on both sides. The France that has emerged from May 10th, 1981 [the day the Socialist Party won power with the election of François Mittérand as president of France—translators note] makes some beautiful declarations that win the sympathy of African peoples. But what we want is that everyday reality would live up to these declarations, to the promises made. Remember those made by the Socialist Party before the 10th of May, 1981, and compare them with what is happening in concrete terms today. Certainly I do not underestimate the weight of international capitalism, with everything that implies, but still.
The behaviour of the French government is surprising, clashes with our convictions and our hopes when it continues to maintain relations with South Africa [under the Aparthied regime at the time—editor’s note from L’Humanité], when it sends its troops to Chad to support the regime of Hissène Habré. It is these facts that hurt us. We tell them to the French in an act of friendship, in all honesty, in order to allow them to better understand us, just as we expect them to criticize us, to tell us how to be better understood by them. The cooperation between France and Upper Volta can be beautiful and exemplary on the condition that we accept that our enemies be condemned no matter where they are found, even if it hurts us due to our parallel alliances.
- ↩ See Miernecki. Katie. (2021). “34 years after Sankara’s assassination, killers finally stand trial.” Liberation News, October 15. Available here.
- ↩ For a general overview of Sankara’s work, see Malott, Curry. (2020). “Thomas Sankara: Leadership and action that inspires 71 years later.” Liberation School, December 21. Available here; and Bakupa-Kanyinda, Balufu. (2018). “Thomas Sankara: A film by Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda.” Liberation School, August 23. Available here.
- This interview was originally published in French as Brécourt, André. (2017). “Thomas Sankara: ‘Nous n’avons pas importé notre révolution.” L’Humanité, October 12. Available here. It was republished here on ThomasSankara.net here.
- ↩ A few passages in this interview contain minor errors or unclear formulations in the original French, which are most likely due to it being transcribed from an oral exchange. While the minor errors were easy to correct, the formulation at the beginning of this sentence appears contradictory, and we therefore modified it according to the overall sense of the passage. Literally, it reads: “We cannot spare, not block the road to reactionaries [Nous ne pouvons ménager, ne pas barrer la route aux réactionnaires]”—translators note.